Growing up in the mountains of Western Maryland, youth ministry was an integral part of my life. Most of my friends attended church, and I found myself regularly joining their youth groups. I’d say during my middle and high school years, I was going to some sort of church youth program at least twice a week!
When I left the mountains to attend college and graduate school, I fell in love with the city – first Philadelphia and later New York City itself. It was like nothing I have ever encountered. I no longer needed to drive; I could ride public transportation. I encountered apartment buildings that could house the entire population of my hometown, and I was introduced to religious, ethnic, and linguistic diversity like I’d never known before. During my time in these cities, I have worked with several youth groups, and I have come to believe that a major purpose of the church, especially when it comes to youth ministry, is to be a place for imaginative local theology.
God is not only among the trees and wilderness but is present just as joyfully among the high rises and street vendors.
But let me back up a bit. One of the first innovators in modern youth ministry was Jim Rayburn, who founded Young Life in the 1940s. Young Life’s basic strategy is to go to a high school and engage the students with popular music and discussion. Once the student has grown to trust the leaders, the leaders begin to teach the student about Christ. If they continue to participate, Young Life leaders encourage students to come to camp, where they can enjoy hiking and other sporting endeavors. Camp, in turn, culminates with the youth being asked if they want to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Bringing things full circle, when these converted youth enter college, they become the new leaders of Young Life for a new batch of high schoolers. In other words, Young Life is a belief factory that mechanizes belief into believers. The goal for the program is to continue multiplying new leaders through the conversion of high schoolers.
Since its genesis, youth ministry has approached the contemporary culture in one of two ways. One the one hand, youth leaders can accept and embrace culture to its maxim. They play popular music at their meetings, and they use references from popular TV shows to discuss theological ideas. This is the approach heralded by Young Life. On the other hand, youth leaders can choose to reject their local, contemporary culture and base all teaching and ministry solely on Scripture and church authorities.
The problem with these two approaches is they cannot adequately reflect the youths’ own lives and experiences. It is impossible to reflect theologically on every new song heard or television show watched. Youth and leaders alike expend remarkable effort and experience increasing anxiety trying to appear “cool;” there’s an unspoken competition to ride the next wave in pop culture before others in the group. And if we are honest with ourselves, how theologically imaginative is our popular culture? Many theological realities, from perichoresis to how to dialogue with people of other religious traditions, will simply not be addressed in a youth group whose primary teaching mechanism is popular culture. At the other end of the spectrum, youth ministry that is only willing to sanction “Christian” culture fails to encourage critical reflection. It promotes false dichotomies between what is “Christian” and what is not.
Retreats can give us divine glimpses, but it is the stuff of ordinary life that provides us with the majority of experiences we use for theological reflections. Reflecting on the campfire moments we had during the summer seems cruelly absurd when it’s winter and people are sleeping outside.
It was in the context of the city, of urban youth ministry, that the limitations of these two models became abundantly clear to me. I have come to believe that what we need for urban youth ministry is a new vision that uses the very context of the urban landscape.
Much of what one encounters in the city provides the opportunity for creative theological reflection. For instance, subways and other modes of public transportation can be a source of frustration for new city-dwellers. First, public transportation has its own schedule, by which everyone must abide. This is a shock to those used to driving a car wherever they want, whenever they way. Second, one encounters a diverse and new set of people every time riding the subway. Unlike our cars, which usually only transport family and friends, we don’t get to choose the other occupants of our subway car. Finally, unlike the scheduled inspections and oil-changes of the private vehicle owner, when public transportation needs maintenance, it can change one’s schedule for the day.
I think there’s a worthwhile metaphor here. In the same way that a subway ride can deconstruct a suburban vehicle-owner’s understanding of travel, so can the pluralism of the urban landscape diversify any preconceived homogenous theological constructs, including individualistic salvation meta-narratives. It’s no longer just between you and the divine; rather, God’s movement of bringing healing and wholeness is for a diverse group of people around our world.
Christian faith formation, especially for youth, does not proceed doctrinally, from belief to believer, but rather experientially, from believer to belief.
Cities hold a tremendous amount of people in a limited amount of space. Everything is crowded and fast-paced, and somehow God is in the midst of it all – in the concrete and in the shuffling of feet. While many people may retreat to the mountains or woods for spiritual reflection, it is important theologically for us to remember that God is not only among the trees and wilderness but is present just as joyfully among the high rises and street vendors.
When I lead youth group, I begin by asking us all to reflect on how we have experienced God during the week. In this way, the city is always in the landscape of our divine experiences. God is present when a stranger held the subway door open so a youth wouldn’t be late for school. When friends shared the snacks they bought at the bodega. In the gentle breeze another youth felt down by the Hudson River. These experiences remind us that divine moments can occur anywhere! Retreats can give us divine glimpses, but it is the stuff of ordinary life that provides us with the majority of experiences we use for theological reflections. Reflecting on the campfire moments we had during the summer seems cruelly absurd when it’s winter and people are sleeping outside.
Christian faith formation, especially for youth, does not proceed doctrinally, from belief to believer, but rather experientially, from believer to belief. The irony, of course, is that our traditional models of Christian education privilege the first approach over the second. Cities offer a perfect opportunity to counteract this mechanistic approach, to theologically crush these brick-beliefs and replace them with a faith that is ever-moving, ever-diversifying, and ever-promoting-the-common-good. I believe that youth ministry is most effective when, rather than teaching doctrines, it enables youth to reflect on their lives – experiences such as gentrification, school shootings, and puberty. Urban youth groups do not need generalized curriculum, but a faith like a subway car: diverse, messy, and never on time.
AUTHOR BIO: Timothy Wotring lives in New York City and is a Masters of Divinity student at Union Theological Seminary. Timothy enjoys reading postmodern, feminist, and liberation theologies, taking walks in Central Park, and exploring fun neighborhoods. He blogs at black flag theology (www.blackflagtheology.com).
To read other articles from Week 1: Seek the Peace of the City, click here.
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